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Political bullies affect more than just election
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Political bullies affect more than just election

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I’m writing this column on 9/11 so by the time it’s published, the saddest day in America will have passed and, with it, 20 years of pain that will never be forgotten. The pictures of Bush and Biden at the ceremonies were heartfelt to see — unity is a beautiful thing and unequal to any other tribute, because it creates a sense of one in America in a time when we are so divided.

The following day, America went back to the norm of political ads, stories and action that dominate our culture, especially online. Not only are people spouting their views, but politicians seemed to have hogged the media, and they have a lot to say about people they are running against. Most of it is cruel.

What hurts my heart is that their rhetoric affects our children. Children hear and absorb a lot more than most adults realize, and when political speeches contain bullying and inflammatory language, it can have a huge impact on kids.

Many young people will say they aspire to be president someday, and even if they don’t want to be president when they grow up, many kids are in awe of the country’s leader. But during an election, what are they learning from people running for the highest office in the country, including the minions of political office seekers under the president?

Rather than learning to treat others with respect and dignity, children are observing the nation’s top political leaders engaging in the very bullying tactics kids at school use to climb the social ladder.

Multiple polls show that most Americans have deep concerns over the loss of civility among people. They see a lack of respect in schools, workplaces, and especially in government. In fact, according to a 2018 poll by Weber Shandwick, 65% of Americans believe that lack of civility is a major problem in America, and 72% believe our government is the least civil place.

Nearly half of those surveyed are tuning out government and politics because of the incivility and bullying behavior, and 83% of those surveyed believe people should not vote for candidates and politicians who are uncivil.

But, sadly, they do.

Relational aggression is another bullying tactic politicians share with middle school and high school students. While most politicians refrain from physical or sexual bullying, they do engage in verbal bullying, prejudicial bullying and cyberbullying.

Bullies blame-shift to deflect attention away from themselves. Likewise, political candidates often engage in blame-shifting. One popular example is to blame the person they are running against for everything from the economy, unemployment and health care issues to racism, immigration, gun control and freedom of speech.

The goal of the political candidate is to cast doubt on the abilities of another person by blaming them for something that needs to be addressed in the country. What’s more, when one person blames another, they avoid taking responsibility for anything they may have done to contribute to the situation.

Calling another person names is one of the oldest and most recognizable forms of bullying. It’s not uncommon to hear kids on the playground call each other “losers” and “babies.” They may even resort to calling other kids “stupid” and “dummy.”

While most adults would agree that name-calling is unacceptable, they seem to tolerate it from political candidates. In fact, many political candidates frequently call each other names. Even supporters get into the act, especially online. But if society wants to see an end to bullying, people need to demand that their leaders set good examples.

Sabotaging someone’s reputation is one of the oldest political tactics. Whether they use behind-the-scenes tactics or develop a smear campaign online, the goal is the same. The bully wants to draw their opponent’s reputation into question. They may even go so far as to engage in public shaming.

Ironically, the same thing happens every day in high schools around the country. Putting an end to this type of bullying in schools requires that adults live by the same standards they set for kids and teens.

Often one of the more subtle forms of bullying, spreading rumors or planting gossip about someone, is frequently used during elections. The only difference is that the political candidate’s team plants stories among the media and online to cast their opponent in an unfavorable light.

Sometimes, these tactics are simply lies, other times they are partial truths. But the goal is the same and that is to cast doubt on another person’s integrity and character.

Research consistently shows that children and adolescents not only learn how to behave from watching television and viewing other types of media, they also learn what is acceptable socially. Consequently, when kids see our nation’s leaders bullying others, whether it is on television or online, they grow up thinking this is an acceptable way to treat others, especially if they want to get to the top someday.

There are some unintended consequences of election bullying. A study conducted at Penn State University shows that a child who witnesses bullying may have a hard time feeling safe even though they are not directly impacted by the actions of the bully. The study’s authors point out that witnessing bullying leads to a social mistrust that diminishes a child’s faith in people and society. While the study applied to witnessing bullying at school, many researchers believe that witnessing bullying in any arena would have the same impact.

Reports concluded that sometimes watching politicians will embolden students to use slurs, engage in name-calling and make inflammatory statements toward each other. And when confronted, they point to politicians doing the same thing as a justification for their actions. Teachers who participated in studies report an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation.

What can parents do to help? Research suggests that when parents are involved with children and their television or online viewing habits, the impact of what they are watching is much less acute. Parents need to sit down and talk to their kids about the bullying they see from political candidates and point out what’s wrong with the behavior and discuss how they should behave instead.

Use election time as a teaching tool about bullying, but don’t forget to monitor your own words. It’s fine to express personal views on any election, but, as parents, we need to be respectful in doing so. If you engage in political discussions online, avoid bullying others who do not agree with your views.

We need to remember that kids are watching us for cues on how they should respond to and interpret political bullying.

As a personal tribute to 9/11, let’s all vow to be adults that our kids can be proud of and those that lead them into the proper way to treat others with respect and dignity.

United, we can do it.

Peg DeMarco is a Morganton resident who writes a weekly features column for The News Herald. Contact her at pegdemarco@earthlink.net.

Peg DeMarco is a Morganton resident who writes a weekly features column for The News Herald. Contact her at pegdemarco@earthlink.net.

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va. — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

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